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Spooney asked this question in one of his podcasts, and I've started wondering about it myself.

In a D&D 4.0 encounter, why would an at least moderately intelligent creature (including, but not limited to, a dragon) ever land to attack its foes with melee attacks when it has hover?

Most of the tactics entries for dragons have them use their breath weapons and then melee claw and bite attacks until breath weapons recharge - do the dragons land in between recharges or do they just hover low enough to hit enemies with reach.

If creatures with hover just stay airborne, what are melee-based classes supposed to do throughout the encounter? Does it inexpediently increase the difficulty or do the various monster manuals take it into account?

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For readers: this is the podcast. High-level summary: a dragon should never land for combat. A proper dragon tactic would be to stay in the air at great distance, only returning once their breath weapon recharges, swooping in and roasting the players at range. Melee characters: useless. Rangers: plinking a few arrows won't do much. Magic users: probably not much better off. Making the party fly: won't be able to match a dragon. In summary: the PCs never stood a chance. –  Jonathan Hobbs Dec 24 '12 at 13:08

4 Answers 4

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This is one of those situations where the players have to try to shape the combat. There are three major situation types where a dragon or dragon-like creature might land:

1. It is compelled to by the players.

This category includes solutions that range from magic that can hold the dragon's wings, to creating clouds of dangerous gases or acids to make the air unsafe. Anything of this sort of compulsion relies on directly attacking either thecreature or the space it's in to force it to land. Some DM's might allow players to attack the wings separately, for example.

2. It has a motive that it can't follow while airborne.

If the PCs have captured a dragon's treasure and are taking it through a system of tunnels, the dragon can't easily fly after them. It would have to crawl/dig, and so be easier prey. Treasure is a powerful motive for forcing the dragon to come to you, as are families (such as baby dragons) or other items the flying creature wants to protect. For birds, this includes nests. This method is about baiting the monster into a trap or ambush where the melee warriors can cause lots of damage.

3. It is hindered by terrain.

A dragon probably won't have a lair with enough space to escape from the PCs easily, as they tend to be in caves. Large birds might be caught in their nests, and then get stopped from getting into the air. Terrain is the players' best friend in this case, and they can shelter under rocks or in other enclosed spaces where the dragon has to land to attack them, or in some cases even to find them. Some unorthodox ways to do this include the players hiding in forests where the canopy stops flying creatures from reaching them. Strategies like this rely on the dragon being in terrain where it is at a disadvantage, and can be combined to devastating effect with strategy number 2.

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3 does beg the question of why a Dragon would lair in such a place... –  KRyan Dec 24 '12 at 16:22
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@KRyan The temporary disadvantages are outweighed by the overall advantages of protecting treasure or young - it depends on the DM's background for the creature. How many dragons, for example, would want to store their treasure in a non-enclosed space? Would they pile up coins on a hillside? amidst some trees? –  Dakeyras Dec 24 '12 at 16:43
    
@Dakeyras Depends, a place on top of a mountain, accessible only through flying has an innate defense. Think about an eagle's nest. –  Cristol.GdM Dec 24 '12 at 17:21
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@Dakeyras has it. The predator a dragon is worried about defending its treasure from is a bigger dragon. Leaving your hoard out in the open is like leaving your wallet in the street. –  Tynam Dec 26 '12 at 14:33
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The problem with lairs out in the open is that it's difficult to sleep when it rains. –  GMJoe Dec 27 '12 at 3:32

I'm distinguishing between flying and hovering. A hovering creature has fewer concerns than a creature that has to fly at an appreciable speed in order to avoid falling.

Different available attacks

A large dragon has a long tail that it could use to whip players. Using it while flying is difficult. Similarly, a creature with prehensile wings might be able to grapple or slice at enemies while not using them to fly.

Attack angle

A breath attack from a flying creature affects an area in a straight line. A breath attack from a creature on the ground affects an area in an arc. If it is difficult to line up your targets for a bombing run, as it were, it might be easier to get a good concave.

Even assuming a straight line is desired, it's going to take some finesse and timing and cooperative terrain to line up four soldiers on the ground for one flame breath. It could be easier in some circumstances to land.

Attack rate

Landing allows a flying creature to dish out more attacks per minute than remaining in the air. You don't lose time wheeling around and lining up your next shot. This is especially true if you want to concentrate on a single target. Easier to land and pin them down with your talons than to try picking the person out of the crowd and bank just right to be able to make one swipe as you pass and then wheel again for another attack ten seconds in the future.

Soft underbelly

A flying or hovering creature with a soft underbelly can land and have their weak points protected by merit of being too low to the ground for their enemies to attack.

Zoning

If you want to keep people away from a particular spot, the easiest way is to park yourself on that spot. If you're hovering over, that's decent for zoning, though landing is better. If you're flying, it's bloody near impossible to zone people away from a spot and still get some meaningful damage in.

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I'm not sure I understand your point about attack angle. As for attack rate: hovering creatures wouldn't need to "wheel around". And creatures with reach (such as a dragon) could use normal talon and bite attacks from the air. –  Ravn Dec 24 '12 at 20:37
    
this would be an excellent answer if this question was not tagged 4e. –  wax eagle Dec 25 '12 at 16:57
    
Is it based on mechanics from older editions? That would explain some of my confusion.. –  Ravn Dec 25 '12 at 17:05

Great answers so far from a naturalistic standpoint. From more of a meta-perspective there are a number of reasons a GM would not want flying creatures to engage in bombardier hit-and-run tactics.

First, and really most importantly: this would make for a long, repetitive, and incredibly frustrating encounter for the party. The goal of any combat is to provide dramatically-compelling action and exciting tactical opportunities, not to make melee characters feel impotent because they have nothing but a ranged basic attack. If your encounter doesn't accomplish these things, what purpose does it have? One of the biggest accomplishments of 4e is that it gives each character role an equal opportunity to contribute in combat - it doesn't make a lot of sense to deliberately build encounters that sabotage the very design goals of the system.

Second: D&D 4e is not really intended for a "fantasy simulationist" style of play (if this is what you are interested in, there are far more rigorously codified systems). Flying and 3D combat are notoriously difficult to implement and require a lot of hand-waving. Once you open that can of worms, you quickly end up bogged down in questions of how to keep track of three-dimensional concepts like altitude/reach on a 2D grid.

Third: All dragons know that if they just burn down Laketown from the air, some cocky hero will one-shot them through that hole in their jewel-encrusted bellies ;)

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Re First: You make a good point, but making the players come up with a way to force the dragon to the ground, or come up wtih a way to fight it in the air can make for an interesting encounter. Making them flee to nearby shelter can also be interesting and dramatic, especially if they get to go and prepare for the next battle so that they can then force it to the ground. –  TimothyAWiseman Apr 9 '13 at 19:53

It might land to avoid the risk of crashing and taking falling damage after being knocked prone.

A flying creature that is knocked prone falls up to 100 squares (500 feet) and, if it touches the ground, it crashes and takes 1d10 damage per 2 squares (10 feet) fallen, minus squares equal to its flying speed. A dragon with fly speed 8, for example, risks taking damage if it hovers more than 9 squares in the air.

Note that the dragon would then require two move actions to resume flight, one to stand and the second to fly. A creature cannot fly while prone.

With that in mind, there are few ranged at-will powers that can reliably knock a flying creature prone. Clever Shot, a ranger power, may be the best level one power. Psions get cranial disturbance at level 7 with an unaugmented ranged prone, etc.

Granted, this is a bit of an edge case, since most flying creatures have a fly speed that exceeds their reach. In general, flying is a strong advantage and players may need to seek shelter (eg: in a cave with a low ceiling) to force the dragon out of the air.

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It's a fair point, but it really seems like at-will ranged powers that can knock prone are sufficiently rare that they would be of little concern to the hovering creature. –  Ravn Dec 24 '12 at 20:41
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Prone does drop a hovering creature; hover only prevents dropping from the stun condition. –  Soulrift Dec 26 '12 at 3:11
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Also keep in mind readied actions. Any Prone, Immobilize (sans hover), or Slide effect triggered by a ranged attack can likely hit the dragon when it gets close enough to use it's breath attack. Slow effects could also help to keep it in range for an attack that can bring it down. –  Lunin Dec 26 '12 at 5:30

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